I’m at university this week. The University of Blogging. This seat of learning, which has no rector, no library and confers no degrees, runs a programme regularly hosted by WordPress,and aims to bring together people who from all over the world, keen to hone their writing and presentation skills, and to help each other to Write a Better Blog.
December in the north of England has been the month of the flood. Until Boxing Day, it was Cumbria that saw all the action, with some communities flooded out not once, not twice, but three times. They were told to stand by for more on Boxing Day. They readied themselves…. and nothing happened, because the torrential rains prophesied swept south and east of them, firstly into Lancashire, and then Yorkshire
We were staying with my daughter’s family in that part of Greater Manchester that used to be in Lancashire. They live near a Nature Reserve through which Bradshaw Brook passes. I’d say ‘flows’, but such a phrase is normally far too active a description for this narrow little watercourse.
This was Bradshaw Brook yesterday.
We were due to travel home from their house to ours, in Yorkshire. Highways England, the BBC, and motoring organisations all had conflicting information on their websites. But they all agreed that our usual route, a scenic drive over the Pennines, was largely impassable.
It would have to be the motorway. Longer, duller, but surer. We’d not long been travelling when we noticed that traffic on the other carriageway was at a complete standstill, for miles…and miles. It was only when we got home that we found out that a 20′ sinkhole had opened up near Rochdale. So much for safer-by-motorway…..
Where to leave the motorway though, for the final few miles home? There were floods in Leeds, floods near Harrogate – there were sure to be floods in Boroughbridge too. What about Knaresborough? It turned out there were floods near there too, as we discovered when warning notices turned us back on the road we’d come on, and sent us back by several miles to look for another route. Familiar fields had turned into lakes, deep and almost unfordable road-side puddles were unavoidable.
We’re lucky. We were flood-tourists on our journey home, gawping at rivers-become-seas, and roads-become-rivers. Our home wasn’t flooded, nor will it be. Others aren’t so fortunate. They’re either contemplating the devastation of their own home or business – or both, or anxiously shoring up the front door with as many sandbags as they can lay their hands on, in anticipation of the days ahead, when the forecast continues to be grim. We could all do with a bit of an old-fashioned winter cold snap, with a touch of frost, but positively no rain.
This time, though, as it’s Christmas, I just want to show you how its been decorated for the season. A few weeks ago they shut the doors for a whole fortnight, and everyone from groundsmen and gardeners to guides and caretaking staff turned to and spent their time dragging trees into place, painting, placing baubles, candles and foliage, gilding, and generally making the place festive. Then they re-opened. We came away from our afternoon there, admiring everyone’s hard work and enthusiasm, feeling Christmassy for the first time this year. Happy Christmas everyone!
If the National Trust property where you volunteer has an abbey on site, albeit a ruined one, that’s where a good few of the Christmas celebrations need to take place. It’s fair to say that there are many people locally who regard a chance to hear singing from a local choir at one of the ‘Music and Lights’ events, or at the carol service here, as one of the focal points of their pre-Christmas celebrations.
The Abbey hasn’t had a roof since Henry VIII’s men came and removed it. Only the cellarium, which the monks used for storage, specifically for vast quantities of valuable woollen fleeces, is still under cover. It’s a little draughty too, as the windows remain unglazed, but the acoustics are amazing. The monks who used to call the abbey home might be rather surprised to find that their storage facility is nowadays, from time to time, a concert hall.
Picture the scene before the service began. Here’s the cellarium at 1.30 p.m.
For two hours after that, though, there was a batallion of volunteers, with a couple of members of staff cheerfully mucking in to transform the place. Some of us hauled ranks and ranks of folding chairs out from storage and arranged them neatly. Some protected scores of candles with little cardboard collars so nobody would be burnt by molten wax when the time came to light them during the service. Others uncoiled lengthy snakes of cable for the sound and lighting systems. And the largest team of all arranged the refreshments: coffee, tea, hot chocolate, mulled wine.
By 3 o’clock. members of the public were already choosing their seats, and the refreshment stand was very much in business. ‘One coffee, two teas and four mulled wines please!’ ‘Two hot chocolates, a mulled wine and a coffee’. On and on we worked. Suddenly, someone said she thought she could hear ‘Oh come all ye faithful’ in the distance. The service had long since begun, and we’d been too busy to notice.
The carol service continued, service of refreshments continued. By half past 4, things finally started to quieten down as the event drew to a close. Time for the team to snatch a refreshment break, and do a little accounting. We’d sold far more than £1000 worth of hot drinks, including 66 bottles-worth of mulled wine. Not bad for a couple of hours’ hard graft. And as the congregation proved willing to do a whole lot of chair shifting, clearing up didn’t take too long.
Even if we didn’t hear many carols, we felt we’d had a good start to the Christmas season. It hadn’t been very peaceful, but there had been plenty of cheerful good will from staff, volunteers and visitors alike.
And meanwhile, up at the entrance to Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal, two other volunteers had been busy. Here’s Sharon, Volunteer Elf, welcoming visitors to meet Father Christmas – a volunteer, of course.
When I started out as a National Trust volunteer, when I began as an Information Assistant at St.Mary’s Church, Studley Royal, I didn’t expect to sort out a little mystery that’s continued to exercise my brain from time to time, ever since my first and only visit to India, 8 years ago.
Let’s begin there, back in 2007. It was my first day, all by myself, after a night flight into Bangalore. I was far too excited to sleep, and already over-stimulated by a city, busy since well before 6.00 a.m., alive with cows, horses, donkeys, sheep, chipmunks, dogs by the thousand, monkeys, parakeets, eagles …. and auto-rickshaws, always auto-rickshaws, and the unending sound of motorhorns constantly in use on every car and lorry. I’d already allowed an amiable rickshaw driver, who could doubtless see ‘arrived this morning’ tattooed across my forehead, to take me on a conducted tour of the city. We served each other’s purpose. I got a decent sit down and a running commentary in broken English on the city sights. He was probably paid over the odds by a very appreciative customer who knew a decent bargain when she saw one. When I left him, after a thoroughly entertaining morning, I found myself wandering towards London Road. And then Robinson Street. Robinson Street? Who could Mr. Robinson be? I finally found out ….. the other week. If only I’d wandered just a little further on that first day in Bangalore, I’d have been offered a clue. I’d have found ‘Ripon Street’.
Fast forward to an early session at St. Mary’s Church, Studley Royal just a few months ago. My fellow-volunteer Frances was taking some visitors round. I tagged along, because Frances has an apparently bottomless fund of knowledge, and a way of engaging her willing listeners’ attention. She’d already told them that the church was the design of a noted exponent of Gothic Revival architecture, William Burges. She’d pointed out several examples of its inventive design, of its richly coloured decorative detail, of its religious symbolism.
Now she was telling us that it was commissioned in 1870 by the deeply religious Marchioness of Ripon, and her husband, the Marquess. His full name and title was George Frederick Samuel Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon, 2nd Earl of Ripon. She thought we might like to know his story. She was right.
The Marquess of Ripon had an impeccable pedigree. He was born in No. 10 Downing Street, and as an adult, served as an MP in various northern constituencies. Shortly after succeeding to the title of Earl of Ripon in 1859, he became first Undersecretary to India, and later Secretary of State for India. From 1868 he was highly valuable in a variety of roles in William Gladstone’s government.
Then, in 1874, he converted to Roman Catholicism. His strong sense of duty prevented him from continuing to serve in government. The Church of England (the Established Church) and state are linked in the United Kingdom. He withdrew from public life.
However, in 1880, Gladstone persuaded him to take the post of Viceroy of India. The Indians grew to honour him: the British rather less so. Here’s why.
He expanded the powers of locally elected Indian governments, and liberalised internal administration. He lowered the salt tax. He gave local language newspapers the same freedoms as English ones, and enacted some improvements in labour conditions. He allowed Indian judges the same rights as European ones when handling European defendants. And he achieved all this in only four years. No wonder Indians felt the least they could do was name a few roads after him.
He went on to serve in other capacities before becoming leader of the Liberals in the House of Lords, and died in Ripon in 1909.
So – thank you St. Mary’s, Studley Royal. And thank you Frances, National Trust volunteer. An eight year old mystery is solved.
A few months ago, I got a job. Not for the pin-money, because I’m not paid a penny. But I’m richly rewarded. I signed up to be a volunteer for the National Trust, at the property nearest our home, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. Cistercian Abbey, Georgian water garden and mediaeval deer park…. no wonder it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Since we moved to Ripon, we’d loved spending time there, so I got to wondering….what would it be like to volunteer there? What could I do? What might be involved?
The answer turned out to be…almost anything you want There are dozens of different roles, from gardening to guiding. You could drive the mini-bus or form part of the archaeological monitoring team. You could work in the shop, or in the admissions areas. Badged up, you could wander the grounds, being alert to the needs of visitors who’d like a potted history lesson or to find their way to the toilets. You could work in the wildlife team, helping look after and monitor all those ancient trees, or the herds of deer. You could turn to when there’s a special event, and put out chairs. And you’re quite entitled, over the years, to change your mind and try something else.
I for instance, started out as a visitor assistant at the Victorian High Gothic Church of Saint Mary’s in Studley Royal Park. It’s a real masterpiece of Victorian architect William Burges, but it turned out not to be ‘me’. I admire the building hugely, but it doesn’t involve me at an emotional level as the ruined abbey does. So I quit. No hard feelings
But I shan’t be quitting the Learning Team. Our bread-and-butter is sharing a Day In the Life of a Monk with schoolchildren. The children dress up in monk-style habits, and tour the site getting in touch with the brothers’ silent and family-free routines, led by one of the team. We examine the roofless, windowless Abbey and try to picture the church back in its prime. We imagine the vast space, illuminated only by candles, as the monks worshipped there eight times a day, from 2.00 a.m. onwards. We visit the refectory where the monks dined, in silence, once a day. Did those monks eat meat? What about potatoes? No? Why not? We visit the Warming Room and imagine having just four baths a year, shaving our tonsures with oyster shells. We discuss bloodletting. We talk about all the daily routines. Maybe the children remember only a few of the facts later, But we hope they are moved by these atmospheric ruins, and return later with their families.
They might come though, to experience the natural environment of the grounds: they might go pond dipping, or on a walk where they try to use all their senses by listening, touching , seeing, smelling and so on. Or make mosaics based on what they’ve observed. Or go den-building in the woods. They’re as sure of a grand day out as are the volunteers in the team.
I’ve ended up doing all sorts of stuff I’d never have thought of attempting. Car park attendant on Bank Holidays? I didn’t think so. But it turns out to be fun togging up in a hi-viz jacket, barking out radio messages on the walkie-talkie system, getting in touch with your inner traffic cop, and generally being a welcome face to visitors as you help them manouevre themselves into the busy car park.
And some things are quite simply, a privilege. I wish you could have joined me on Sunday evening. After dark, the site was opened to less mobile visitors. For one night only, cars were welcome on site, to be driven s-l-o-w-l-y past the floodlit Abbey buildings. The evening was cold, misty, moody, atmospheric. Night birds swirled above the trees, dampness dripped from the trees, and monks could clearly be heard from within the abbey, chanting their plainsong (a recording, actually, but none the worse for that). I talked to some of the visitors, often very elderly, as their cars and drivers made their stately way through the grounds. Their appreciation of the staff and volunteers who were there helping the evening to go smoothly, though nice to hear, was quite unnecessary. I wouldn’t have missed this experience for anything. A special evening indeed.
And there are other perks. A couple of times a year there’s a ‘works outing’, when volunteers can take a trip to properties in other parts of the country. Here’s one. There are winter lectures for those who want them, to widen and deepen their knowledge of the history of the place There are times to socialise – a barbecue, a quiz night, meals. We’re very well supported, properly trained, and appreciated by the regular paid staff. I look forward to every single thing I do as a volunteer at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. I feel very lucky.
Goodness me. Christine and Max, our French friends from our days in Laroque arrived on Saturday, and it’s only Tuesday today. Look what we’ve crammed in….
An orientation session in Nidderdale, taking in a few views….
A peaceful morning at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal……
A visit to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Salts Mill in Saltaire……
…. where we enjoyed David Hockney’s Arrival of Spring exhibition, featuring the Yorkshire Wolds…
The Five Rise locks at Bingley: a narrowboat was making its slow upward progress through the five locks as we arrived…
A mooch round Haworth, home to the Brontë sisters….
And views, views, always vast, always bounded by drystone walls, always different.
We’re having a rest tomorrow.